by Madeline McMahon
In December 1618, the talented scholar John Selden was called before King James to answer for the publication of his Historie of tithes (London: William Stansby, 1618). Selden’s work on tithes (literally, the “tenth” of all goods due to the church) had instantly incited controversy. Selden was made to apologize to the High Commission of bishops and forbidden to respond to the royally commissioned attacks against his book (G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath”). Reflecting back on this moment several decades later in his Vindiciae, Selden recalled that
Although it had been licensed…by the signature of one of the priestly tribe, yet once it had been printed, it offended very many of them, and also all the bishops then about the court, with the exception of the then Bishop of Winchester, that most learned and peerless Lancelot Andrewes, who was quite pleased by it as being in agreement with the most accepted practices amongst us…Hence those fierce hornets [i.e. bishops at court]…incited the mind of the king… (Selden, Vindiciae, 16 – 17. English translation from G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath” 361-2.]
Selden’s account reveals the influence of what Kenneth Fincham called “court prelates”—the bishops who made their home at King James’s court. It also raises questions. Why did Selden’s already licensed book offend? And why, alone of all the court prelates, was Lancelot Andrewes instead “quite pleased” by the Historie of tithes?
Under James, the status and collection of tithes had not improved since the reformation reallocated church property to the state and prominent private citizens: as support for parish clergy, tithes were inadequate, unreliable, and often went to leading laymen anyway. In the later years under Elizabeth, clergy began to argue what had been “politically unacceptable” following the reformation: that tithes were due jure divino—by divine right (E. A. Bershadsky, “Politics, Erudition and Ecclesiology: John Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’ and its contexts and ramifications”, 4; Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship, 257-8).
Andrewes was one of the first to make this argument in his dissertation for his Doctorate of Divinity at Cambridge in 1590, when he was thirty-five years old. Like many writing a dissertation, he claimed (justifiably in his case) that his argument was new: “nor is there any by whose candle I shall light mine” (Of the Right of Tithes. A Divinity Determination… (London: Andrew Hebb, 1647), 5). This “avant-garde defence of clerical tithes” which “ran counter to advanced protestant opinion” was a risk that paid off: Andrewes was immediately made chaplain to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen (Peter McCullough, Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures, lviii; McCullough, ODNB). Andrewes was one of the first of a movement that pushed back against the earlier Protestant reformers, especially the Calvinism prominent in the Church of England (see Peter Lake’s essay in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court). It was true, he admitted, that before the reformation “the desire to increase the Revenue of the Clergy proceeded to such a height, that it was greatly to be feared, lest the Church should swallow up the Common-wealth” (Right of Tithes, 3). The reformers had addressed this and other abuses, but Andrewes wished they had “taken care not onely of increasing the light, but also of allowing oil”—providing means for the church they had reformed (Right of Tithes, 5). Andrewes sought to defend tithes from abrogation by proving that they were “provided for by the Sacred Law” (jure divino) by “God, the Lawyer himself” (5).
Andrewes drew on a range of evidence. He turned to two passages of scripture as the cruxes of his argument: Abraham giving tithes to the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20 and, ironically, Jesus’s critique of tithes in Matthew 23:23. Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham in return gave a tenth of his goods (Right of Tithes, 6). This, for Andrewes, was the moment that established tithes by sacred law, as the return due to the priesthood for its services.
Andrewes went on to prove that tithes had been considered due jure divino throughout history—and not just in the Jewish and Christian religions. Greco-Roman religions mandated tithes as well, which meant that not only sacred but also natural law required such payments (24). He pointed out tithes’ protection by canon and civil law, including English common law (13) and cited different church fathers to illustrate the ubiquity of tithes across the early Christian world. He also argued from “Reason” that clergymen’s dependence on the fruits of the earth made them more sympathetic to their agrarian parishioners—tithes made for a better community (22). At the end, though, Andrewes returned to “the example of Melchisedek, who surpasseth the antiquity and faith of all Histories” (26).
Under James, it became de rigueur to argue that tithes were owed according to sacred law. Andrewes’ once subversive argument had become the norm. While Selden did not write against tithes, his approach and rationale was opposite to Andrewes’, despite the fact that he touched on similar topics and even structured his book in much the same way. For Selden, the Jewish practice of tithes was neither continuous nor relevant to that of the Christian church. Besides, Selden pointed out with philological and historical bravado, technically Abraham had paid Melchizedek spoils of war (The Historie of Tithes, 1-3). The early church was supported by charity rather than legal requirement. Only in the late medieval church were tithes enforced.
In his defense to the king, Selden wrote that he had “resolved wholly to leave the point of divine right of tythes, and keep myself wholly to the historical part” (“Of my Purpose and End in writing the History of Tythes”, quoted in Toomer, John Selden, 259). The title of his work—the Historie, rather than Right of tithes—signaled Selden’s real departure from previous approaches. Perhaps Andrewes saw something of his own in Selden’s work: another subversive and innovative treatment of tithes. Both Andrewes’ and Selden’s works were coopted several decades later when the case for an established church itself was at stake. Andrewes’ dissertation was translated and published in 1647, while Selden noted in the 1650s that clergymen then sought
where they might find the best argument for their tithes, setting aside the jus diuinum; they were advised to my History of Tithes, a book so much cried down by them formerly (in which, I dare boldly say, there are more arguments for them than are extant together anywhere)… (Selden, Table Talk, quoted in Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’,” 374-5)